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Portrait of artists on fire

  • Published at 02:52 pm April 21st, 2020
Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and Anthony (Tom Burke) in The Souvenir Collected

Two films from 2019

Two semi-autobiographical films came out last year, revolving around artists in brief retreat – Joana Hogg’s The Souvenir and Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory. Set in Britain, the first film chronicles an aspiring artist’s struggle for young love at the cost of her sanity. Set in Spain, the latter follows an ageing film-maker turning away from his craft.  Both protagonists head toward their first love, which is film-making, after a series of events that have made for great pieces of cinema in 2019.

The Souvenir:

Julie, an aspiring female artist falls head over heels in love with Anthony, an opinionated, older man – a love which wounds more than it heals, a love so erratic that it sets the artist’s both heart and youth on fire. Her budding creative vision is to be slowly poisoned by the man’s mere touch, the sound of his voice being enough to startle her into an astonishing silence. Not only she loses her voice, loses sight of all else that is important, but does so in the name of love which amounts to nothing more than a bad romance. Her first big, bad romance.

The Souvenir, Joana Hogg’s fourth semi-autobiographical film, is a moving exploration of a toxic relationship, exacerbated by the man’s heroin addiction and the artist’s youth. The love that ties them together is dwindling every day, the knowledge of which the artist, so fiercely sick in love, dismisses with a certain dignity that only a lover can command. The title of the film refers to a Jean-Honoré Fragonard painting that the main characters briefly converse about in a gallery. Julie says the girl in the painting looks sad. Anthony says she looks determined. Well, can she be both? Lord knows, our protagonist Julie is.

Tilda Swinton and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne play a fictional mother and daughter in The Souvenir Collected

What is at once a limitation as well as a feat is the sense of detachment and duality with which the main characters converse, thrive and fail in their love affair. Anthony’s charm is not rooted in kindness, rather in malice. His truths are meant to deceive, and his lies seek to flatter. For the longest time, much like other minor characters in the film, the audience is compelled to look for the spark between the couple that fuels their incredible dependency on each other. It is nowhere to be found, drawing one to the conclusion that the spark was either snuffed out too early, or it was only perceptible to Julie. What does she see in him? Well, only what she wants to see. We, on the other hand, get to observe everything from our vantage point, rummage through their lives, and see the affair for what it is: a farce, a lesson, a predictable disaster. Anthony’s charm is lost on us, because we witness Julie’s collapse at first hand.  For what it is worth, Anthony is the souvenir, an ever-present reminder of art that was derailed and eventually returned to, a chapter sincerely treasured later by the artist inside Julie.

Hogg’s masterfully crafted drama drew rave reviews upon its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year - many praising the film for its unabashedly intimate study of a female artist descending into the ferocious grips of a destructive love and trying ever since to crawl her way back to normalcy, for its impeccable cast and stunning cinematography. The Souvenir is one of those rare films that linger long afterward one has left the theatre.

Pain and Glory:

Salvador, a celebrated film-maker, goes into early retirement due to a multitude of physical ailments and indulges in flashbacks of his idyllic childhood and a decade-old tumultuous affair with a younger man. Salvador’s unique relationship with his mother, memories of summers spent at cinema halls with children his age or on the bank of the village river with his mother’s friends lead us through the alleys of his pain-ridden mind. Do all men become essentially children in old age? As the camera moves to and fro across Salvador’s life, we understand it is not a question of if, but what it is that happens after childhood returns for good.

Everyone urges Salvador to make another film. Surely, it cannot be that he had said everything he wanted to. There must be more. Yet Salvador is reluctant to revisit the sets. The pain of the body has dulled the curiosity of the mind. Film-making, which he considers a gruelingly physical job, is simply what his body demanded him to outgrow. Rather, he writes confessional pieces, reminisces about his early life and comes to terms with matters that cannot be resolved.

Pain and Glory is the latest collaboration between Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas Collected

As a part of this process, Salvador reconciles with Alberto, an actor he cast in one of his earlier film, with whom he later had a public feud owing to their creative differences. Alberto introduces the ailing film-maker to heroin which helps dull the pain. Like The Souvenir, the topic of substance abuse is a recurrent theme in Amodovar’s wistful drama. Alberto convinces Salvador to let him stage one of his confessional pieces, the mere process involving the staging of which compels Salvador to realize how potent stories from one’s life can still be, how it can make up for lost years and leave a path for the future. Salvador reaffirms his faith in his craft that is his saving grace and sees the glory inherent in pain.

Pain and Glory premiered at the Cannes festival to widespread acclaim, winning Antonio Banderas the Best Actor award. His role as Salvador saw him playing a man who is at once the most eccentric and the quietest of any room. Dealing with a somber subject-matter while generously playing with the brightest of colours, Pedro Almadovar’s latest Pain and Glory  will raise comparisons with timeless films like Federico Fellini’s 8 12and Theo Angelopoulos Eternity and a Day for years to come.